GATOR OFFENSE IN-DEPTH
By: Mark McLeod
Line-up and blow them off the ball. The Michigan Wolverines clearly exploited the Vanderbilt weakness when they rolled up 246 yards in the season opener. Nine weeks into the season, the Commodores remain weak against the run.
However, the difference in those two ballgames resembled night and day. Duke simply had nothing else to offer. South Carolina, while not an aerial juggernaut, is dangerous as long as Steve Spurrier is on the sidelines. Despite turning the ball over three times, Carolina mixed things up and scored on three of their first four possessions. You can't be one dimensional and beat Vanderbilt these days.
Carolina kept the drive alive by converting five of six third down opportunities and jumped out to a 17-3 lead in Nashville. Duke converted only 3 of 10 third down chances and was soundly beaten.
That isn't particularly good news for a Florida offense that has been woeful over the past month on third down- 13 of 44 (29.5%)
A team that ranked among the nation's best in converting third down plays has found the going extremely tough against top 25 defenses. However, much of the blame for many of those third down faux pas can be found in their own huddle. Penalties, dropped passes, poor execution combined with a bizarre personnel move or obvious play call has made life difficult for the Florida offense.
The Big Nasties
Florida head coach Urban Meyer used the media to issue a challenge to the offensive line. He chastised the group for allowing opponents to pressure quarterback Chris Leak. He didn't stop there either. Meyer said that the Gators have no choice, but to play the incumbents, because there is currently only one reserve ready to challenge for a starting position.
Left tackle Phil Trautwein (6-6 308) did a heck of a job on Georgia's pre-season All-American defensive end Quentin Moses last weekend. Moses finished with a big zero. Zero tackles. Zero assisted tackles. Trautwein was one of only two offensive linemen named to the champions club this past week. Trautwein was named offensive player of the game for his play against LSU where he graded out at 84%. He was also named co-offensive player of the game by the Florida coaches for his effort against Tennessee. He graded out at 88% with seven knockdowns against Kentucky and also made the champions club for his play against Alabama.
The projected starting offensive guards prior to the season opener were Jim Tartt (6-3 315) and Ronnie Wilson (6-3 312). Both give Florida a physical, rather punishing presence. Tartt has demonstrated toughness in returning from those shoulder surgeries. He does not have the range of motion and continues to experience tightness in the shoulder. Overall, Tartt has played pretty well. He has experienced some penalties that have cost the Gators. Once he regains full motion in that shoulder, the Florida coaches expect him to become one of the leagues dominating guards. He is a real road grader.
Florida lost Wilson on August 12th to a broken ankle that required surgery. Wilson had performed very well throughout practice and like Tartt, displayed the nasty attitude that coaches love. Wilson returned against LSU where he saw action on 44 plays as a reserve. He graded out as a champion in that game. With the problems Florida experienced last weekend up front, it remains to be seen if he cracks the starting lineup or once again comes off the bench. That will be determined in practice this week.
Two of Florida's best linemen are center Steve Rissler (6-3 306) and right guard Drew Miller (6-5 305). The pair played together at Sarasota Riverview High School. They were among the most sought after recruits in the state. Rissler is Florida's elder statesman with sixteen starts. The senior moved over from guard where he player last season. Rissler was named co-offensive player of the game after his performance against Tennessee and graded out very high against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU. He was the only other lineman to grade out champion last weekend against Georgia.
Miller, a junior, made a name for himself as an Olympic lifter at Riverview. He told me that helped him tremendously with the transition to the collegiate level. Miller has started fourteen games in his Florida career. He was also named to the champions club for his work against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU. Obviously, he did not grade out among the champions last weekend.
Right tackle Carlton Medder (6-5 315) was seemingly lost last spring. However, he noted that a change had to be made. The redshirt junior worked very hard in the weight room- the result being a stronger, more physical lineman. Medder graded out high against Tennessee, earning membership in the champions club. He had a most pleasant surprise on the front. However, he did not make the champions club the past two weeks against Kentucky and Alabama.
Overview: Meyer lambasted the offensive line and simultaneously issued a direct challenge to the offensive coaching staff that the mistakes, which have been addressed, must be corrected. Penalties, dropped passes, players failing to carry out assignments, and reserves who aren't making the push for playing time continue to hurt this unit. I would think it was understood- loud and clear.
Personally, I wonder if the Gators have experimented in practice with the right side of the offensive line they used throughout most of August with Ronnie Wilson at right guard and Drew Miller at right tackle. The chemistry between Wilson and Miller was pretty good back then.
Regardless, things should be somewhat easier this weekend for the guys up front.
Vanderbilt allowed Duke to run for 4.2 yards per carry. South Carolina ran for five yard per carry. Ole Miss and Georgia averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Arkansas is the only squad the Commodores will face who have averaged more than the Gators 4.6 yards per carry.
Last weekend the Gators inserted the running back by committee campaign. Six different Florida players carried the football and running backs only accounted for nine of the Gators thirty-five rushes. It wasn't a failure, but it did appear discombobulated at times.
It appears that you'll see Florida go back to more of DeShawn Wynn at running back with either fullback Billy Latsko or a tight end providing additional running room. Wynn does not have good speed, quickness, or flash. Nor is he a power runner who runs as determined as John Riggins, Larry Csonka, or Mike Alstott in their prime- and that has frustrated the Florida coaches. Wynn is better than adequate though and based on the coaches' depth chart is the best Florida has ready at this point. Had Union County running back extraordinaire C. J. Spiller not opted for Clemson on National Signing Day- it is probable that he'd be entrenched as the starter at Florida.
Quarterback Chris Leak (6-0 207) has completed 124 of 201 passes for 1666 yards. Leak is tied with Erik Ainge with 16 touchdown passes. He has thrown seven interceptions. Leak took a hit in the game and said that his effectiveness was limited due to some blurry vision. This was a very foolish move on Leak's part. He is a part of the team. Not letting them know of his injury put all of their hard work for an Eastern Division championship in jeopardy.
Leak struggled the past couple of weeks in the second half. Against Auburn, he hit only 5 of 12 passes for 54 yards and a key interception. Last week he hit 6 of 12 for 46 yards and another interception. Again, he was feeling the effects of a shot to the head, but he must come out and play better in the second half.
True freshman reserve quarterback Tim Tebow (6-3 229) earned the SEC Freshman Player of the Week against LSU. Tebow brings a whole new aspect to the Florida offense that forces defensive coordinators to spend time preparing for him. Tebow is the Gators second leading rusher with 282 yards on just 50 carries, a hearty 5.6 yard average.
Senior DeShawn Wynn (5-11 238) should be full speed this weekend. He did not start last weekend. In fact, Florida's leading rusher didn't even secure his first carry until the third quarter. Fortunately, the coaching staff saw fit to get the ball into his hands, where he helped secure the victory. Wynn has 83 carries for 436 yards (5.3 ypc) and three touchdowns. Sophomore Kestahn Moore (5-10 212) is also banged up. Moore has run for 218 yards on 43 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. Both are also solid receivers out of the backfield. Wynn has hauled in five passes for 48 yards. Moore has seven receptions for 56 yards and a score. He had only one carry last weekend.
The unsung hero of this offense is senior fullback Billy Latsko. He is an outstanding blocker who gives Leak additional time to throw, Wynn and Moore the ability to get past the linebacker, and is often spotted downfield knocking around a defensive back to clear a path for the Florida receivers. Latsko (5-10 232) provided a huge spark to the offense with a key 18 yard reception against Alabama. He provides yet another headache for defensive coordinators.
Florida has a pair of athletic tight ends. Junior Tate Casey (6-7 240) has several starts under his belt and teams with Cornelius Ingram (6-4 225) to provide a terrific one-two punch. Casey is a big target who played baseball with the Gators baseball squad. He made the national highlight circuit with his receptions of Tebow's double-pump, jump pass in the back of the endzone against LSU. Ingram played basketball for the Gators and is one of the most athletic tight ends in the nation with speed and running ability galore. Ingram has hauled in eight passes for 100 yards. He picked up 38 yards on a big play against the Vols. The pair has combined for 15 receptions totaling 163 yards and two touchdowns.
The Gators have one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the country. They can flat torch you when they opt to go four or five wide. The leader of the group is senior Dallas Baker (6-3 207) who leads the team with 37 receptions for 596 yards (16.1 ypc) and six touchdowns.
Junior Andre Caldwell (6-1 203) who was lost for much of the season last year. Caldwell was a little rusty in the season opener against Southern Miss, but has emerged as the Florida playmaker the past two games. His running ability after the catch was outstanding against Georgia. Caldwell has 31 receptions for 301 yards and four touchdowns. He carried the ball extremely well on reverses last weekend too. Overall, he has 11 carries for 89 yards and a score. Senior Jemalle Cornelius (5-11 185) has 18 receptions and brings a tremendous 18.7 yards per catch average with him. He has a lot of quickness and wiggle. Cornelius has three touchdowns.
True freshman Percy Harvin (5-11 180) saw extensive playing time last weekend running the football. The former U.S. Army All-American had eight carries for a team high 37 yards last week against the Bulldogs. He had suffered a high ankle sprain against Tennessee. Harvin has blazing speed and has hauled in 10 passes for 163 yards (16.3 ypc), while rushing for 195 yards on just 22 carries, an average of 8.9 yards per carry.
Overview: Last week should have been a breakout for the Florida offense. There was really nothing that Georgia did that throttled the Gators offense. They made a plays at times, but Florida did more to hurt themselves. Those problems ranged from the coaching booth to the sidelines to the huddle to the line of scrimmage.
I would expect the Gators to get back to more of their traditional attack. That means more of Wynn, Baker, Caldwell, and Cornelius. I don't understand why Baker, Cornelius, Casey, and Ingram weren't utilized more often last Saturday, but hopefully it was a lesson learned. The staff almost outsmarted themselves to a fault, so to speak. Hopefully, they'll also utilize more of Tim Tebow in passing situations. Meyer has said in recent weeks that Tebow is able to run more of the spread. So, let's see it.
The Vanderbilt defense has allowed 4.1 yards per carry (ten touchdowns on the ground) and 11 touchdowns through the air. This is a pretty good defense, but simply doesn't compare to what the Gators experienced against LSU.
Vanderbilt will keep guys back to prevent Florida from torching them with the big play. That proved pretty effective against Georgia and South Carolina. Leak and Tebow will have to throw underneath. Obviously, the strong running attack will help.
Analysis: Vanderbilt is a much improved program under fifth year coach Bobby Johnson. There is no way that Florida comes in over-confident in this game. The Commodores gave them all they wanted last year and more last year. The Gators haven't forgotten either.
The Florida offense is looking for answers as regards to their lack of continuity. When comparing the Gators offensive numbers against teams who won't soon rank among the Top 25 defense in the land (Southern Miss, Central Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky) versus those who hold that distinction (Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Georgia) the one glaring weakness is found on third down. Florida averaged just 29.5% compared to 59% against the also-rans.
Field position and penalties have hurt the Gators too often this year. That must be avoided on the road. Those penalties have placed them into those third down situations too often.
The Gators have the personnel to move the football against Vanderbilt. They'll have to take care of the football as Vanderbilt has 21 takeaways on the season, second most in the conference. They'll also have to play with more discipline and stay out of third and long.
The Gators will pound the Commodores with DeShawn Wynn and gets the ball into the hands of Baker, Caldwell, and Cornelius more often.
GATOR DEFENSE IN-DEPTH
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Last season, Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss led the team and finished fifth in the league in sacks (7.5) despite coming off the bench as a reserve. The Southeastern Conference (and team) leader with .88 sacks per game is Florida reserve defensive end Derrick Harvey, who has seven sacks on the season.
The former Roosevelt High School (Md) All-American only posted seven total tackles as a redshirt freshman last season. He has exploded into one of Florida's hardest working defensive linemen. You could see Harvey's growth during fall practice and into the season. He is not your typical pass rusher though. Harvey is also very good against the run. The sophomore has also forced two fumbles.
The Big Uglies
Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout their defense. That fact has not been lost on opposing offensive coordinators who have adjusted by shortening their passing game. The two and three step drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants, screens, and skinny posts have cut into the Gators ability to sack the quarterback. They have been able to get pressure on the quarterback though.
This group is nasty against the run. Florida ranks fifth nationally having allowed just 67.3 yards per game.
Senior noseguard Marcus Thomas (6-3 296) has amassed 26 tackles, including 5.5 for loss. He is second on the squad with four sacks. Thomas has an explosive first step, tremendous quickness, speed, and athleticism that is certain to help the Gators. Thomas led the Gators in tackles against both LSU (8) and Auburn (10). He was not at full speed last weekend.
Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said that he should have played true freshman reserve noseguard Brandon Antwine (6-0 271) more in the Auburn game. He felt that he could have helped keep Thomas fresh and that Antwine has progressed well enough to warrant additional playing time. Expect to see him more often, especially if the time of possession is clearly in the Commodores favor.
Playing alongside Thomas, senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2 290) has racked up 16 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, including ½ a sack, a forced fumble, and has forced a fumble. He has also broken up a pass. Signed as a running back out of Palm Bay High School, Cohen struggled to find his niche at Florida. He has seen time at fullback, defensive end, and finally, at defensive tackle where he said that he is most comfortable. Cohen has played well all season. Reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) is a former starter at defensive tackle. He has six tackles, including a tackle for loss. He has also been credited with half a sack. Harris has also played well. Both Cohen and Harris possess great strength, athleticism, and speed. Both Cohen and Harris earned champions club status for their play last weekend in Jacksonville.
The Gators are set at defensive end. Experience coupled with strength, speed, and good quickness on one side. There is also tremendous speed and athleticism on the opposite side and with the reserves.
Ray McDonald (6-3 280) has really begun to turn the corner after returning from having both knees surgically repaired. McDonald has 23 tackles, including three sacks among his four tackles for a loss. He is one of Florida's leaders. McDonald played his finest game as a Florida Gator last weekend recovering a fumble and returning it for a score for the Gators defense. He was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the week for his play against Georgia.
You can't begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6 255). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss' quickness is reminiscent of Georgia's Quinton Moses. The junior bulked up over the off-season and plays against the run very well too. Moss has 32 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, which includes 3.5 sacks, and a team high eight quarterback hurries. He also has forced two fumbles.
Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) might as well be labeled a starter. He is known for his speed and quickness, yet his intensity is one thing that appears to be his most significant improvement. He doesn't have Moss' first step, but he is quick. Harvey leads the team with seven sacks. He has notched 17 tackles, six quarterback hurries, and has recovered two fumbles.
Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-2 231) is one of the centerpieces to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his monster play against Tennessee. He led the Gators in that game with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his team leading 51 tackles, four tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.
Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who seemingly plays his best football in big games. He had terrific game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He finished with nine stops against Auburn, second best in the game. He is currently second on the team with 49 tackles, including seven tackles for loss, including two sacks, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, and a forced fumble.
Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a first year starter. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career, while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in '03 where he saw very little action. Crum has 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, which includes .5 sacks. He also has secured a quarterback hurry.
There is plenty of talent playing behind the starting linebackers. They are getting limited experience in the games and several snaps on special teams. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) (six tackles) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) (14 tackles) will be key challengers for starting jobs next season.
Overview: The Florida defensive front has limited opponents to just 2.5 yards per carry and 67.2 yards per game on the ground. That is tops in the conference and fifth best in the nation. The Gators have 23 sacks on the season, which is tied with Georgia and Arkansas as the third best in the conference. The Gators have recorded 395 of their sacks the past two games against Auburn and Georgia.
That seemingly wouldn't bode well for a Vanderbilt offensive line that has already lost All-SEC right tackle Brian Stamper and left guard Josh Earnes. Statistically though, the Commodores haven't lost any ground without the pair. The ‘Dores have averaged 149.5 yards rushing per game, while only yielding four sacks.
Granted those opponents included Ole Miss, Georgia South Carolina, and Duke- all of whom have had problems getting to the passer at times. Vanderbilt has faced only two teams that have recorded more than 20 quarterback sacks this season. Michigan sacked Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson six times. However, Arkansas was only able to record one sack on the mobile quarterback.
Florida has been pretty good defending the red zone, allowing just six touchdowns and six field goals in 19 opportunities. That is third best in the SEC. The Gators had allowed far too many third down conversions against quality opponents. Tennessee (6 of 13), Alabama (8 of 15), and LSU (7 of 13) had a much higher success rate (51.2%) over the other teams on Florida's schedule. However, Auburn was only able to convert 6 of 16 (37.5%). Last weekend, Georgia converted only 3 of 13 (23%).
Despite the loss of 2005 All-Southeastern Conference quarterback Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt wide receiver Earl Bennett has hardly skipped a beat. Bennett ranks among the nation's best in receptions (54) and receiving yards per game (83.7). The sophomore is one of the nation's most outstanding talents. He will present the most difficult challenge a Florida corner has faced this season.
Florida received a tremendous boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins departure. There was no learning curve, as he has a fine understanding of the defense from his days at Utah. Smith has 29 tackles. He has intercepted five passes in Southeastern Conference action (leads SEC with Simeon Castille) with two each against Alabama and LSU. If there is one area that Smith needs to shore up it's his hands- he has dropped two sure interceptions. Smith would have taken his third pick against the Crimson Tide to the house if not for getting a little too excited when he realized that nothing lay ahead of him but green grass.
Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who is best remembered for making the play of the game, which sealed the Gators 49-42 double overtime victory over Commodores a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. Lewis is a former wide receiver who started several games in place of the injured Vernell Brown last year. He has two interceptions, one of which he returned for 35 yards. The other occurred last weekend against Georgia. Lewis has 14 tackles and has also knocked down three passes.
Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) leads the team with 47 tackles. He also has 4.5 tackles for loss, has broken up three passes, two interceptions, and added a safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.
The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 195). The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. He was the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Alabama and followed up with another outstanding performance a week later against LSU. He returned a John Parker Wilson (Alabama) interception 70 yards for a touchdown. He is tied for second in the conference with four interceptions.
Overview: The Florida secondary had a solid performance against heralded Georgia freshman Matt Stafford. However, you can't possibly ignore the dropped passes by Georgia receivers who were open. Stafford finished 13 of 33, but could have easily would up with 19, maybe 20 completions.
Nickson has not struck fear in the hearts of opponents with his pinpoint passing ability. However, his ability to scramble and either find an open receiver who has found a hole to settle into or a seam to run for yardage has improved. You can bet it is a concern for Florida's defensive staff.
Add to that the two year headache that is Earl Bennett. This truly sensational talent will have plenty of passes thrown his way- and he won't drop the ball like those Georgia receivers. The Florida secondary has to keep him bottled up though.
His importance to the Vandy attack is obvious. Bennett has 54 receptions. That is exactly 50% of the Commodores receptions, minus h-back Steven Bright, who was lost to injury in the South Carolina game.
Injuries: Sophomore defensive tackle Javier Estopinan (6-1 282) has been lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Analysis: This game has Reggie Nelson written all over it. He simply must be at his best to help Florida defend Bennett and quarterback Chris Nickson, who presents the Florida defense with a unique challenge. He is not a good runner, as a couple of the quarterbacks the Gators have faced throughout the 2006 season. Nickson has evolved into a tremendous runner. He is currently seventh on the Southeastern Conference rushing list with 564 yards on just 106 carries. He earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Week honors after ripping the Duke Blue Devils for 150 yards on only 15 carries.
Nickson completed 14 of 25 passes against the Blue Devils for 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns. On the season, he has completed 53.2% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.
Florida will have to play disciplined football this weekend. Nickson and Bennett are dangerous to play sloppily against. Hopefully, the Gators can correct those mistakes that allowed Georgia's Martrez Milner to slip into the open area. Milner dropped three passes. If Bennett has a similar opportunity, school will be in session.
If Florida jumps out to a solid first half lead- look out. The Gators have allowed just 46 second half points all season. Comparatively, the Vanderbilt defense has allowed 53 points in just the fourth quarter.
Florida has one of the best run defenses in the country. In fact, it will be the best that the Commodores have faced to date. The Gators had given up just one rushing touchdown this season, until the Bulldogs ran for two last weekend. They also have the sixth best scoring defense in the nation at 12.3 points per game. It's not often that Florida can boast such lofty numbers, but this is one of those years.
The Gators job would be much easier if they can get pressure while containing Nickson with their four man front. If they are forced to blitz, Vanderbilt would have an opportunity. One of the best match-ups will be Florida's Jarvis Moss against Vanderbilt left tackle Chris Williams, who was SEC Lineman of the Week after shutting down Georgia's Quentin Moses.
GATOR SPECIAL TEAMS
Florida kicker Chris Hetland's struggles continue. The senior missed two field goals against Georgia last weekend. On the year, he has hit only one of seven- his lone three pointer being a 22 yard field goal at Auburn.
Hetland did not get a field goal attempt until the Tennessee game where he missed 47 and 52 yard attempts respectively. His next attempt came two weeks later when he missed on a 36 yard attempt. A senior should be able to maintain his confidence despite not being called upon to kick until the third game of the season. However, I'd be willing to bet that the Florida coaching staff will get kickers into position to make an attempt in the first or second game from this point forward- just to make certain that they'll be prepared before a big game against an arch-rival.
Head coach Urban Meyer said that he would once again open things up in practice. He said that if another kicker were to equal Hetland's practice efforts that kicker would be the starter this weekend in Nashville.
Florida ranks ninth nationally in punt return coverage. The Gators have allowed just 38 yards on 12 returns- a paltry 3.17 yards per return. That's impressive considering Florida has faced five of the top eight return men in the Southeastern Conference.
Last week the Gators held Georgia, who was ranked fifth nationally in punt returns to a two yard average. The Gators have maintained exceptional discipline staying in their lane and carrying out their assignments. The Florida cover team is the only squad ranked among the top 20 nationally who have caused a fumble and taken it to the house for a score.
On the season, punter Eric Wilbur has punted 27 times for a 43.9 yard average. He has hit 12 of his punts (44%) inside the opponents' 20 yard line.
Vanderbilt is ranked 112th nationally in punt returns with a 4.6 yard average.
Prior to the Auburn game, the Gators kickoff coverage had been very good. Florida has faced two of the top 15 kick returners nationally in Auburn's Tristan Davis and Kentucky's Keenan Burton (15). Burton was held nearly 15 yards below his average. The Gators were not as effective against Davis, who secured five returns for 124 yards (24.8 avg), which was still just over three yards short of his average.
Florida has found a gem in return specialist Brandon James (5-7 180). The true freshman from St. Augustine High School burst onto the scene against arch-rival Tennessee with an electrifying 89 yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back for a bogus block in the back penalty. James was once again spectacular last weekend. He has three punt returns for 38 yards, including a 66 yard touchdown return that was called back for a bogus illegal block on Nick Brooks.
James has returned 14 punts for an average of 8.7 yards. He is also Florida's primary kick return specialist currently averaging 19.4 yards per return. However, James was in a boot for two days after spraining his ankle. His status for Saturday's game is probable.
Analysis: Florida either has the advantage or is even in the special teams match-up. The one area where Florida has a glaring weakness is when kicking field goals. Vanderbilt's sophomore kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt is automatic inside the 30 yard line. However, he has only hit 5 of 10 from outside the 30 yard line. The Florida defense doesn't usually afford many trips inside the red zone. So…
Florida 31 Vanderbilt 13
VANDERBILT OFFENSE IN-DEPTH
By VandyMania Staff
The offensive line was considered Vanderbilt's best in years when the season started back in September. Since then All-SEC offensive tackle Brian Stamper has gone down with a back injury and won't play for Vanderbilt again this season and starting offensive guard Josh Eames is also out to injury and his return date is uncertain. Despite these losses and some switching around of players, the Commodore's line has continued to provide adequate protection for their quarterback and decent run blocking. Veteran offensive guard Mac Pyle (6-5, 315 Sr.) and junior tackle Elliot Hood (6-5, 300 Jr.) have filled in with good results. A pair of junior starters remain from the beginning of the season and have started every game. Center Hamilton "Ham bone" Holliday (6-3, 295 Jr.) has performed well in his first year as starting center. Left tackle Chris Williams (6-7, 315 Jr.) earned SEC Lineman of the Week honors after the Georgia game and could garner All-SEC honors at the end of the season. Red shirt freshman Ryan Custer (6-4, 295) has moved up to starting guard while veteran starter Merritt Kirchoffer (6-5, 300, Jr.) will back up Mac Pyle. Eric Hensley (6-6, 300, R-Fr.), Bradley Vierling (6-3, 295, Jr.), Drew Gardner (6-5, 300, R-Fr.), and Thomas Welch (6-6, 265, R-Fr.) have each seen significant action and provide quality backups to the starters. Welch, a former high school quarterback, was moved from tight end to the offensive line before the South Carolina game after the injuries to Stamper and Eames.
Injuries: Brian Stamper (out), Josh Eames (out)
Analysis: Due to injuries the Vanderbilt offensive line is not as deep as it was at the beginning of the season but is still considered one of the strengths of the team.
Vanderbilt has many of the same receivers it had last season when now Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler was still a Commodore. Vanderbilt suffered a big loss during the South Carolina game when H-back Steven Bright went down to injury on their first drive. Bright was the team's second leading receiver with 18 catches. Despite the loss of Bright, the Commodores still possess great talent at the receiver position. Earl Bennett (6-1, 200, So.), who earned first team All-SEC honors as a freshman, seems to be saving his best for last like he did last season. Through 9 games Bennett has 54 catches for 753 yards and 4 touchdowns. Bennett is backed up by Alex Washington (5-9, 185, R-Fr.). Marlon White (6-4, 208, Sr.) has 15 catches and 2 touchdowns and is backed up by Bryant Anderson (6-3, 195, R-So.). George Smith (6-3, 195, R-So.) has super hands and caught a 44-yard touchdown pass against Duke on Saturday. He has 8 catches so far. Sean Walker, who backs up Smith, is the lone newcomer to the unit. Walker caught a beautiful 35-yard pass to help Vandy beat Georgia a few weeks ago and has 9 catches on the season. Tight end Brad Allen (6-3, 240, R-So.), a Floridian, is beginning to show great catching ability. He made an excellent reception against Georgia on Vandy's final drive and has two catches of over 20 yards on the year. Tailback Cassen Jackson-Garrison is also a decent receiver and has registered 10 catches for 50 yards and a touchdown.
Injuries: Steven Bright (out)
Analysis: Vanderbilt has a formidable group of receivers, several whom would likely start for many top 25 programs. Getting the ball to them is the key.
Sophomore quarterback Chris Nickson (6-1, 210, R-So.) (100-188-8 1,244 yards, 11 TDs) won the starting job during preseason practice and has been up and down throughout the first 9 games. Nickson led Vandy's final drive to beat Georgia 3 weeks ago but the next week against South Carolina Nickson completed a paltry 4 of 15 passes with 2 interceptions. Last week, at Duke, Nickson was on fire and passed for 250 yards while running for 150 more, earning him conference honors. Nickson is also Vanderbilt's leading rusher with 564 yards and 7 touchdowns. The backups are red shirt freshman Mackenzi Adams (6-3, 210, R-Fr.)(15-29-1 224 yards, 0 TDs), who is a good passer and fearless runner, and Arizona transfer junior Richard Kovalcheck (6-2, 215, Jr.)(9-13-0, 51 yards, 0 TDs) who is considered by many as a quality passer that lacks the mobility of Nickson and Adams.
Tailback Cassen Jackson-Garrison (6-1, 220, Jr.), a bruising, straight ahead runner, has started for Vanderbilt all season. Through 9 games Jackson Garrison has carried the ball 128 times for 516 yards and 4 touchdowns. The backup is Jared Hawkins (5-9, 192, R-Fr.), who is a shifty runner with blazing speed and excellent strength. Hawkins has 232 yards in 31 carries for a spiffy 7.5-yard average per carry. Tiny true freshman Gaston Miller (5-7, 170, Fr.) is the third tailback but rarely sees the field.
Injuries: TB Jeff Jennings (out)
Analysis: Which Chris Nickson will show up against Florida? The one that destroyed one of Steve Spurrier's former teams, Duke or the one that struggled against Spurrier's current team, South Carolina.
VANDERBILT DEFENSE IN-DEPTH
Vandy's defensive line, long considered a team liability, has emerged as a bright spot in 2006. Vanderbilt's defense has gone from yielding an average 29 points a game in 2005 to just 20 points per contest in 2006. Much of that improvement can be attributed to an improved defensive line. First year defensive line coach Rick Logo has brought new schemes that have resulted in better big play production such as sacks and turnovers. For the first time in years Vandy has more sacks of its opponents than it's given up (15-14).
Converted linebacker, now defensive end, Curtis Gatewood (6-3, 245, R-Jr.) is Vandy's leading sack man with five. Gatewood's play was key in Vandy's upset of Georgia. The other end is fifth-year senior Chris Booker (6-4, 260, R-Sr.) who has 30 tackles and 2 sacks. Broderick Stewart (6-5, 225, R-Fr.)(11 tackles, 3 sacks), and Steven Stone (6-6, 250, R-Fr.)(20 tackles, 4.5 TFL) are the defensive end backups.
Senior defensive tackle Ray Brown (6-3, 295, (R-Sr.) is good at clogging up the middle. Through 9 games Brown has 20 tackles and 1 tackle for lost yardage. Theo Horrocks, who has 30 tackles and 2 sacks, is the other tackle. True freshman Greg Billinger (6-3, 285, Fr.), who de-committed from Georgia to be a Commodore, is one tackle backup along with junior Gabe Hall.
Analysis: The Commodore defensive line will not dominate the Gator offensive line but it does have the ability to make more big plays than in years past.
The Vanderbilt line backing unit is a traditional Commodore strength as several former Vanderbilt linebackers are currently in the NFL. Vanderbilt's 2006 backers are no different. Middle linebacker Jonathan Goff (6-4, 240, R-Jr.) earned preseason All-SEC honors and is currently fifth in the SEC in total tackles. Goff, a team captain, had 14 tackles and a blocked kick at Michigan. Goff's backup is red shirt freshman Chris Johnson (6-1, 235, R-Fr.). Floridian Kevin Joyce (6-3, 228, R-Sr.) got off to a slow start due to nagging injuries but appears to be at full speed after an excellent outing at Duke in which he had 11 tackles and a sack. Joyce, a weak side 'backer, is the leading career tackler on the current Vanderbilt roster with 194. Joyce's backup is red shirt freshman Brandon Bryant (6-1, 235, R-Fr.). Vanderbilt's other starting linebacker is Marcus Buggs, who is the strong side linebacker. Buggs (5-11, 232, R-Jr.) is a big play artist and has 9 tackles for losses, an interception and a fumble recovery. Buggs' backup is Funtaine Hunter (6-3, 220, R-Sr.).
Injuries: Patrick Benoist (out)
Analysis: Vanderbilt's line backing corps is quicker and more versatile than in past years. Bobby Johnson's staff has worked hard to improve speed in all areas of the team and the linebackers are no different.
One word can be used to describe Vanderbilt's secondary, young. The top 9 players at the four positions consist of 3 true freshmen, 3 red shirt freshmen and 3 sophomores. While this is a young unit, they've held their own so far this season. Vanderbilt is currently second in the SEC and 12th nationally in passing defense, allowing just 156 yards per game. The Commodores have made 11 interceptions already in 2006 after getting just 8 in all of the 2005 season.
True freshman D.J. Moore (5-10, 175, Fr.) mans one cornerback position. Moore impressed the coaching staff during preseason workouts with his playing ability and maturity and has not disappointed. Through 9 games he has 28 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked kick. Moore is backed up by Jared Fagan (5-9, 180, R-So.). The other corner is manned by red shirt freshman Joel Caldwell (6-0, 185, R-Fr.). Caldwell, nagged by injuries early on, has 18 tackles and a pass broken up. Josh Allen (5-9, 182, R-So.), who started 8 games during 2005, is Caldwell's backup.
Strong safety Reshard Langford (6-2, 218, R-So.) will likely play on Sundays after graduating from Vanderbilt. Langford, who earned All-SEC freshman honors last season, is on pace for post season SEC honors after this season. Langford has posted impressive stats including 34 tackles, 6 tackles for losses, 3 interceptions, 4 defended passes and 2 fumble recoveries. True freshmen Brent Trice (6-3, 210, Fr.) is his backup and will eventually likely be just as good as Langford.
Vanderbilt suffered a devastating loss several weeks ago when senior free safety Ben Koger went down to a leg injury. Red shirt freshman Ryan Hamilton (6-2, 210, R-Fr.), who nearly won the starting job in preseason practice, has filled in admirably for Koger.
Injuries: Ben Koger
Analysis: This is a young unit that has matured greatly as the season has progressed. They are still susceptible to freshman mistakes.
The Vanderbilt special teams have taken on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde role so far this season. Vandy came about a foot from upsetting Arkansas earlier in the season. Later, sophomore Bryant Hahnfedlt, who just missed the winning field goal against the Hogs, split the uprights in Athens to beat Georgia. Vanderbilt's punting has been no different. True freshman Brett Upson has boomed 70 yarders but has also shanked a punt just 5 yards. Alex Washington has averaged 20 yards on kickoff returns but sometimes has problems holding onto the ball. Washington also returns punts All in all Vandy special teams are better than they have been over the last few years but there is still work to be done.
Analysis: Vandy special teams are a big question mark. You won't have a clue how they'll perform until during the actual game. They can hurt the Gators or hurt Vanderbilt.